Review: Genji: Dawn of the Samurai

Genji: Dawn of the SamuraiPlatform: PS2
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Game Republic
Release Date: 9/20/05
Genre: Action/Adventure
Players: 1

Samurai and martial arts-inspired action games have been around the gaming world for some time now, and in recent years they have become even more abundant — a craze seemingly kicked off by the original Onimusha in 2001. Since then, we’ve seen the Onimusha series grow through two progressively improved games (with a fourth on the way), and other games like Samurai Warriors, Samurai Western, Ninja Gaiden, Bujingai, Shinobi and too many others to count all take their unique stabs at the genre. The latest samurai game to enter the fray is SCEA’s and Game Republic’s Genji: Dawn of the Samurai, a literary-inspired action-adventure of excellent make rooted deeply in Japanese mythology and drama with a cinematic approach and out-of-this-world production values.

Set in 1159 A.D. feudal Japan, Genji is a story-driven samurai tale inspired by but completely unrelated to the legendary Japanese literary work, the Tale of Genji. Starring Yoshitsune, a young samurai warrior and son of the now-deceased leader of the Heishi Rebellion, Genji unfolds in familiar fashion as the tyrannical, power-thirsty Heishi samurai clan has taken control of the land through the power of the Amahagane, divine stones that bestow their bearer with godlike powers, and is in search of claiming all Amahagane to further strengthen its evil goals. Armed with an Amahagane himself, Yoshitsune can’t stand aside and let the Heishi continue their brutal rule, and so he sets out to put an end to their plans. Early on in his quest, Yoshitsune meets and fatefully duels a seven-foot-tall giant of a warrior monk named Benkei, who too is using his powers to hunt down the Heishi before it’s too late. After coming up on the losing end of the duel and realizing who Yoshitsune is, Benkei vows to serve along his side and protect him on his dangerous mission.

With its liberal use of in-game cut scenes and CG cinematics, it becomes clear from the outset that the Game Republic set out to create an epic and gripping storyline that would captivate its audience. Unfortunately though, Genji clearly falls short of this goal due to a clichéd plot we’ve all seen so many times before this and characters that aren’t interesting or likable enough to warrant any emotional investment whatsoever. If the samurai action-game genre wasn’t so over saturated, Genji’s tale would have had far more impact, but at this point these conventional samurai storylines are growing increasingly stale by the game. Worse yet, the game only lasts a mere 4-6 hours at best, which is far too short to warrant purchase for most anyone. Hidden paths and items, and unlockable difficulties and other goodies are moderately abundant, however none of it tacks on much more than an extra couple of hours.

Fortunately, Genji’s stellar gameplay drastically makes up for its lacking length and mediocre plot. With Game Republic at the helm, a development studio founded by Yoshiki Okamoto (formerly of Capcom), it should come as no surprise that Genji resembles the Onimusha series in terms of basic gameplay and visual style. That said, Genji also blends in the higher-intensity action of games like Devil May Cry, and what is ultimately left in the end is a satisfying combat-heavy experience that is fluid, responsive, accessible, tactile, strategic and most importantly good old-fashioned slice-and-dice fun. Combat is quick and easy to pick up with controls setup for one-button normal attack combos, special attacks, jump attacks and timed counters. Due to formidable enemy AI and constantly being out-numbered, Genji is far from a button-masher as well. Blocking and evading becomes increasingly more and more vital as the game carries on, especially against the many epic boss battles, which happen to be as challenging as they are visually stunning. It’s remarkable how well you can change direction in mid-attack to keep surrounding enemies at bay, and the inclusion of a real-time item system by which you can macro healing items and power-up potions to the D-Pad eliminates inventory hassle and keeps you locked into the action without interruption.

What’s more, Genji provides two playable characters, lead hero Yoshitsune and eventual companion Benkei, effectively delivering two unique demon-slaying gameplay styles. At any given time you control one character or the other, however within each stage there are times when you’ll meet up with the currently unused character (usually at save areas) and have the option to switch to that character. Though using both characters isn’t mandatory in many instances, there are times where one character’s abilities will work best for what’s to come in that particular stage. Both characters play quite differently. Dual katanas in hand, Yoshitsune is a master swordsman and relies on nimble reflexes to dodge attacks and leap to high areas, and graceful sword moves that are both flashy and lethal. Benkei, on the other hand, is all about brute force. His movements are slow and he can’t jump to save his life, but his war clubs and massive spears deal serious damage and break down certain barriers.

Since the game flows in a linear string of stages, having two playable warriors helps provide options to play the game in different ways, and with quite a few secret areas hidden within each stage that require the use of each character’s differing powers there are at least some attempts at opening things up. On the other hand, it is sort of sad to find the use of old-school invisible barriers blocking your path until all enemies are cleared of the boxed-in zone, which is additionally compounded by respawning enemies found when retracing through completed areas and the lack of a checkpoint system. If you die anywhere in a level you are taken back to your last save game, and later in the game save points can be pretty far apart. All experience gained leading up to your untimely demise is left intact at least, but it can still be frustrating having to replay certain areas, especially when you are always forced to fight.

As just hinted at, Genji’s combat also ties into a basic experience and leveling system that rewards you for performing long combo chains and linking consecutive kills. Like any RPG, as opposing swordsmen and demonic forces are dealt with, Yoshitsune or Benkei (whoever is you have dishing out the death) earns experience, and the longer the combos you can pull together in succession without being hit the more experience points you get. Also aiding in this is a special Kamui killing mode that stems from the powers the Amahagane bestows upon its owner. Once the Kamui gauge is completely filled, a press of the L1 button executes the power, after which the attacks of enemies are slowed down to give you a chance to avoid attacks and deliver a singular fatal blows. As enemies charge to attack with Kamui enacted, a square-button indicator will flash underneath your fighter for each foe that attacks, and if you time it correctly you’ll successfully counter the attack and instantly kill the attacking party (except against bosses). Once the Kamui attack has successfully ended (when all on-screen enemies are dead without you getting hit) a rating is awarded that in turn boosts the netted experience allotment. With enough experience, the current hero will advance in level and garner improved attributes. Additionally, special Essence of Amahagane crystals can be found hidden within each environment, on certain enemies or in treasure chests, and for every three crystals you can personally build a character’s health, attack or defense. Via merchants, blacksmiths and treasure chests, new and improved weapons, armor and accessory items can be purchased (or found) and equipped to further bolster each hero’s abilities.

Although the game’s storyline isn’t of any particular interest, Genji sure does supply the cinematic production qualities to ensure the experience is both a visual and aural treat. Graphically, Genji has a resemblance to the Onimusha games, only with even more polish and flash to speak of. Though the fixed camera angles don’t let you explore the beautiful game world as much as you’d like, there’s no denying that Game Republic has presented one of the finest videogame renditions of the feudal Japan time period and atmosphere. The bright colors of the local flora and fauna simply burst forth from the screen, and the authentic Japanese samurai architecture and overall intricately detailed environments all combine to present a magnificent visual product. Character models are also impressively rendered with authentic garb, including weapons and armor that directly reflect on the characters with each new piece equipped, and realistically flowing animations that are some of the best you’ll see in any game. Of course it helps that Ken Wantanabe’s stunt double from The Last Samurai was brought on board to help choreograph the motion-captured fighting.

As great as the game looks, it sounds just as good. Japanese voice-over work (with English subtitles of course) has been done to keep the game rooted in authenticity, and overall the acting is fantastic. Engaging environmental ambiance and combat sound effects are both equally as impressive with meaty thuds of Benkei’s club smashing foes to bits (literally) and Yoshitsune’s quick, agile slices and dices all coming through the TV’s speakers to the ears’ satisfaction. Topping it all off though is a phenomenal orchestral score that is both epic and emotionally captivating throughout. The theme track also seems to have an uncanny similarity to The Last Samurai’s main background theme. I don’t know if that’s just me, but either way the music is excellent.

Upon final analysis, Genji: Dawn of the Samurai is a great action-adventure experience loaded with a superb combat system and breathtaking cinematic presentational elements that is totally worth any PS2 owner’s time. As viscerally fun and engaging as the game is to play and sensually take in though, its unforgivably short length and overall lack of lasting value is simply too much to over come in the end. I wish I could recommend buying this game because it truly is a great videogame experience, however when the game ends so soon after it starts I can’t say with an honest tongue that Genji is worth the full price of admission. Fans of this sort of game may find enough value for their cash in unlocking the game’s extra bonuses, but for everyone else there just isn’t enough game here to warrant a purchase. If there ever was a must-have rental game though, Genji: Dawn of the Samurai is that game in a nutshell.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!